Today in History: First 3-Point Seatbelt

If you’ve ever seen pictures of collisions from the 40s or 50s, you might have been surprised at how well the cars would hold up in a fairly serious accident. Even with collisions at 30 or 40 mph, the cars would look only slightly banged-up…the passengers, on the other hand, usually fared much worse. In those days before ‘crumple zone’ designs, the passengers would be the ones absorbing the energy of an impact. In fact, the prevailing wisdom in those days was that a passenger’s chances were much better if he was “thrown clear” of the wreck.

Today, of course, we know better.

By the mid 50s, padded dashboards were starting to appear in some cars, dashboards were being redesigned to get rid of protruding knobs and switches, safety glass was improving and some cars were featuring the first lap-mount seatbelts. The lap belts, however, had the potential to cause serious internal injuries in a high-speed accident. On July 10, 1962, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin designed and patented the first three-point seatbelt, with a lap belt and a separate belt going diagonally across the upper body and anchored at the door pillar.

Volvos featured three-point belts as far back as ’59, and by the late 60s most American cars had the belts as a standard feature. Automotive safety and collision survivability have improved a great deal since then, of course, with crumple zones, airbags, side-curtain airbags and more, but Volvo’s three-point seatbelt design has changed little. And the numbers back it up – seatbelt are estimated to cut the risk of fatalities and serious injuries in a collision by 50%. In 2008, a record 83% of front-seat occupants in the United States were buckling their seatbelts.